"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

No Peace, Many Swords (Matthew 10)

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Pray. Introduction. It’s been almost a year since I last preached at St John’s. I have to say that for a re-introduction to the art and science of preaching, today’s Gospel would not have been my first choice. I’ve titled this sermon “No Peace, Many Swords”.  Excuse my rustiness…

One of the ways we escape from challenging teachings is to either skip the challenging bits, or to overly spiritualize what is being said. As bible interpretation instruction up front, your first reading of a passage of Scripture should always be the literal. Assume Jesus meant exactly what he said, unless the passage signals clearly that it is a parable or something else. Jesus has just finished (through chapter 9) a series of miraculous healings, the calling of the last disciple, Matthew, ending with his lament that the harvest is ready, but the labourers are few. What follows (chapter 11) is John the Baptist asking the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” In the middle comes chapter 10, which is a private discourse between Jesus and the disciples about what is going to happen to them as they begin the work to which they have been called. This is known as the ‘missionary discourse’, and it sets out in unflinching detail exactly what you are to expect if (and this is a big if on our behalf) you are willing to carry that mission forward into those fields ready for the harvest.

We’re missing the first part of chapter 10 that really sets the tone for this somewhat disembodied reading that begins with ‘a disciple is not above the teacher’. As one commentator noted, if Jesus was tweeting this entire 10th chapter the message could be summed up as this, “Dear disciples, the crap is about to hit the fan. FYI, you have been warned. ❤ xoxo JC” (pulpit fiction, Pent +2A)

Jesus calls the disciples to him and begins by giving them truly awesome power and authority…dominion over unclean spirits, the ability to heal every disease and every affliction. He tells them, take no money, carry no bag, only one tunic, sandals and staff, take food when offered, stay with the worthy, and shake off the dust of their sandals for the unwelcoming. What was their reward for hard work? Flogging, court appearances, dragging …brother delivering brother to death, the father his child, and children their parents …and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake before you’re killed in truly nasty ways, Amen.

This is a brutally honest text written directly to the community of believers written directly to all of us who call ourselves Christian. The message of the text is not what you might call an advertisement for following Jesus. In fact, if you look at much of the modern church’s effort to convince people that they need to follow Jesus, a literally life and death decision, it takes the form of the same sorts of advertisements that we see for new cars, or for a new cell phone. Follow Jesus, and your life will be great! Unlimited bandwidth, and free cloud storage! This comes clearly in what we usually call the prosperity gospel: follow God and he will richly bless you. This is a lie of this world.

The sad fact of the modern and post-modern eras, and throughout our history, is that the church has found it easier to act as if the church’s main job was selling the sweetness of moral and spiritual achievement and superiority, rather than proclaiming Jesus’ passion and death. Jesus, as he told us repeatedly, did not come to save winners and the living, but rather those who know that they are losers, and know that they are dead to sin. The point of our time here, learning about our faith, is not to convince us that we all have achieved good grades in the school of salvation but rather to convict us that the only gifts this world can offer us are despair and death.

The lesson today is really all about fear introduced at verse 26, Have no fear of them (them being those who stand against you), for all things will be revealed in God’s good time. discourse on fear is capped by this statement at verse 28: Do not fear those who kill the body; rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul. Jesus had already reviewed who would be killing the body during their ministry – they would be scorned, tortured and killed for the sake of that ministry. Jesus’ answer to that fear is not to say if you follow me you won’t suffer – rather you should be comforted by greater fear of the consequences of not following me. It is an interesting statement from a saviour whose persona is often represented as entirely mild mannered and easy to get along with. Follow me, and don’t fear those who deliver you to death, because the alternative is far worse. Really? This is what I mean about taking Jesus literal at his word, for one of the ways that these sorts of sayings are dealt with is to spiritualize the statement, to blunt the harshness of the saying to make it more palatable to us. Instead we need to grasp Christ’s words in the fullness of their brutal honesty.

I’m an emergency responder in my day job, and I just provided a safety and security training session for some new hires. For the first time in my training spiel I added in the topic of response to an active shooter in the workplace. This really troubled me – have we come to this point? What came to me out of that reflection is that our main motivation to act is to minimize fear. No one knows the days of their lives, yet we strive to keep ourselves as safe as we can. There are things we should do – like smoke detectors, wearing seatbelts, eating right. But other things are done only to give us the impression of control. Do you know that every time there’s a mass shooting event in the United States firearms sales spike up? The anti-firearms media attributes that to Americans concerned about losing their right to bear arms will be taken away. I think it more likely that the news of death reminds us of how dangerous life can be, so we opt for safety through superior firepower. I suspect the same thing would happen here in Canada if we had easier access to firearms. How do you react when you hear about a violent home invasion in Edmonton? Do you think first that you are not to fear those who kill the body…or do you think it’s finally time to get new locks and an alarm system?

Next comes another couplet of thoughts: those who acknowledge Jesus before others, will in turn be acknowledged before God in heaven; those who deny Jesus here will in turn be denied by him before the Father in heaven. This is one of those phrases that we love to quickly turn into a merit-based measure of performance…so that the more acknowledging we do, the more gold stars we accumulate in heaven. Of course, this is not at all what Jesus is getting at – this is a gift of grace from God, if we are true to Jesus, what we know is he will be true to us. What does it mean to acknowledge Jesus in our modern lives? It means not fearing ridicule from co-workers when they ask what you were doing on Sunday. It means being willing to state in a group of friends that there is another way of looking at the world – one that places love as the first option. It doesn’t mean you have to spend three days per month handing out tracts on Jasper Ave, although you can do that if you wish, but it does mean a willingness to explain to others why your approach to issues may be just a bit different. I’m not an evangelist in my workplace, but all my coworkers know I’m a person of faith, and sometimes in discussions I get asked for a Christian perspective on the subject under discussion. It’s amazing what starts to happen when you are seen as a person of faith (and I’ve used that approach with some pretty rough crowds).

Now comes the rough stuff: Jesus says directly that he has not come to bring peace to the world, but rather a sword. This phrase has been used by Christians throughout history to justify all sorts of violence in the name of the Lord. There’s a singular message: being a person of faith is a fundamentally divisive act and will set you against the world. The world ultimately kills the Son of God, so we should not be surprised when we get some push back from that same world for daring to live a Gospel life. The ancient church wrestled with the demand to burn incense to the Emperor as a god, and concluded that you could not be a Christian and burn incense to Caesar. We have the exact same demand on us today, except now we are asked to burn incense for all sorts of modern false gods – prosperity, money, the modern church of the environment, and so on. How often do we succeed at refusing to burn that incense in our private lives, in our work lives? Quickly following this is a series of examples about what that coming sword of Christ means in practical terms to families: men set against their fathers, a daughter against her mother, your biggest foes will be those you are related to. You may have firsthand knowledge of this in your personal faith journey, when push comes to shove, do you opt to satisfy family, or to follow Jesus? Pastor Lance Pape commented on this text that, “Jesus is no champion of family values. He has kingdom values, and these are often not the same thing.” The clear message coming through Christ’s words is to ask, where is it that your heart dwells? Do you opt for your family over discipleship?

When I was attending military college there was a quotation from Admiral Nelson above the building where I took classes: “Duty is the great business of a sea officer. All private considerations must give way to it, regardless of how painful it may be.” Based on today’s Gospel, I can re-write that quote for a Christian: “Following Jesus is the great business of a Christian. All private considerations must give way to him, regardless of how painful it may be.”

The closing teaching: whoever does not take up the cross and follow Jesus is not worthy. This has been used to justify all sorts of reasons to stay in corrosive situations: a spouse in an abusive relationship; the bearing of a disease with courage…well, that’s just your cross. St Paul is instructive when he talks about the thorn in his side, Paul never refers to that thorn as his ‘cross to bear’ when he easily could claim that. The reason is this cross is nothing about bearing a burden, rather it is all about accepting the way of Christ in your life. The cross is not a burden, but rather an instrument of death: death of self, death of ambition, death of anything that distracts us from the truth of Jesus…it is only in acknowledging that we are lost that we may be found, and only in dying that we find true life.

Jesus outlines for the disciples and for us the cost of choosing to follow him, and does so with his characteristic telling of the truth. How much will it cost? Everything. The coming of the Kingdom demands a radical reaction from us. As one commentator puts it, “The rebellion of the world against God expressed itself in the murder of the Son of God; the community that stands by the Son of God must be prepared to be the object of some hostility.” (Beasley Murray, Commentary on Mark 13, 51 paraphrased)

In fact the call of the Christian is not only to boldly live under the adversity the world focuses on them, but also to fully live into the call of Christ. That means not only being willing to love God more than your own family, it also means loving God more than your own life. The big challenge that we face, is that we love life far too much to easily give up on it, and so we grasp at what is before us today, when it is the eternal promise of tomorrow that is our rightful focus. The call of our Lord is not a call to prosperity, or a call to survival, and especially not a call to power in this world. If this isn’t the good news of Christ, then what is? The simple answer is love. The love of a father who sends his only son and the love of a Son who is prepared to die to put an end to death forevermore. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

———————————————————

Immediately on the heels of this statement about fearing God, comes an assurance. The cheapest food sold in the market was the lowly sparrow, and Jesus notes that all of creation, including the sparrow, operates under the lordship of God. If God cares so much for these lowly creatures, how much more must he care for you? This is an important truth that counters one of the mantras that comes across frequently in parts of the modern environmental movement – that humans are, at best, an unnecessary burden on the planet, and at worst, a disease that should be eliminated. There is this idea in the environmental movement that humanity is somehow on the same value plane as everything else in the creation, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They’re all animals.” As Ingrid Newkirk once famously said. This text counters that directly – for part of our comfort in this message of fear, is that while we should fear God, that fear is informed by knowing that that same God values each of us infinitely. That message is not intended to justify our destructive abuse of the creation, for our task is to tend and care for the creation, but it does clearly establish where we sit in God’s understanding of the natural order.

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Written by sameo416

June 21, 2014 at 8:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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